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An awesome task awaits

ENDA KENNY and the Fine Gael Party fought an excellent election campaign and thoroughly deserve victory. They presented policies with conviction, and gave few hostages to fortune. That was admirably in accord with our country's current dire condition and the pressing necessity to take matters under control.

Our troubles are not merely concerns for ourselves. The election returns will have been intensely scrutinised by the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the financial markets. Each will have taken note of our strengths as well as our weaknesses. This is a peaceful, truly democratic and highly sophisticated country. Not a head was broken during the election campaign.

The voters were determined to punish the Fianna Fail-Green coalition for its role in the economic catastrophe. But instead of taking to the streets, they waited for polling day and gave their firm verdict in the proper way and in the proper place.

One remarkable feature of the campaign was the "emergence" of Mr Kenny. Such a term may appear almost absurd when applied to a man who has led his party for nine years and sat in the Dail for half a normal lifetime, but the event, and its aftermath, showed us a new Enda Kenny.

At one stage, when he refused to take part in one of the television debates, his handlers were accused of "hiding" him. When he reappeared, he performed competently in the subsequent debates. His finest moment, however, came at the very end, when he knew that he had won. His self-assurance matched his determination. A good omen.

He had to speak without knowing the final returns from all the election counts, though it already seemed clear that in the matter of government formation there were only two possible outcomes. That remains the case.

The choice lies between a single-party Fine Gael government and a coalition between Fine Gael and Labour. Both have potentially serious disadvantages.

This country has had its fill of independent deputies, and should not rejoice at the large number returned in this election. Independents can hold a minority government to ransom, to the general detriment. Worse, they can defect and threaten political instability.

A Fine Gael-Labour coalition presents its own challenges. Labour began the campaign in over-ambitious mood, wobbled in the middle but recovered. In the end it achieved, like Fine Gael, its best result ever. Its status must be taken into account in any negotiations to form a coalition.

But Labour, like Fine Gael, must take full cognisance of the dreadful condition of the economy and the threats that hang over the immediate future.

As soon as a new government takes office, it will have to investigate urgently the question whether there are even more "black holes" to be filled. Crucial European negotiations are about to begin. Time is not on our side. The Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, has rightly called for the formation of a government on the day the new Dail sits, March 9. We cannot afford long-drawn-out negotiations.

There are other things which we cannot afford. Differences between the two parties on questions of taxation and spending must be resolved speedily and an agreed policy implemented.

Of at least equal importance is the question of public service reform.

This is not simply a question of whether any government can afford to honour the terms of the "Croke Park agreement" with the unions. Very probably the answer is "no" -- something which Labour will have difficulty accepting -- but the question of reform in general is much deeper and will last much longer.

Put bluntly, it is all too clear that the outgoing government, like so many of its predecessors, dragged its heels. This cannot continue.

We pay some of the highest salaries in Europe for some of the worst public services. Virtually no progress has taken place on the abolition of quangos. It is no secret that over-staffing and under-employment exist in many areas.

All this must be remedied. Labour must play its part -- and if it plays its part well it will fortify its position as a party of government, for the present and the future -- and so must the public service unions. As for the new government, it must proceed with speed and firmness. And in its awesome task, it deserves the support of all good citizens.

Irish Independent